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The Collected Essays of Patrick J. Dubbs

Cultural Definitions and Educational Programs

© Patrick J. Dubbs

(Ed. note: This paper was originally prepared for presentation at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Denver, March 22, 1980 and has been slightly revised for publication. All rights are reserved by the author, and quotations may not be made without the written consent of the author.)


This paper is primarily concerned with how definitions of culture tend to shape the focus and activities of educational programs having cultural labels such as bicultural, multicultural, or cultural heritage. However, before proceeding further, it is necessary to comment on three factors which influenced the content and direction of this paper.

First, the proper title of this paper should be "Cultural Definitions and Educational Programs in Alaska: Some Exploratory Thoughts," because it is based on several years of unsystematic observations, casual conversations and unconfirmed impressions. To the best of my knowledge, this topic has not been systematically researched, at least in Alaska.

Second, I will make no attempt to distinguish between the various cultural labels assigned to educational programs, While terms like bicultural, multicultural, cultural heritage, cross cultural, and so forth need not be lumped together, it seems that in practice they are. What is one person's bicultural program is another's multicultural program. Thus, this paper will tend to focus on cultural labels and definitions at a general, rather than specific level.

Third, this paper is directed at elementary level educational programs because the preponderance of culturally labeled programs seem to operate at this level and, more importantly, I believe the impact of these programs is more profound at the elementary level. I will return to the latter point later in the paper.

Defining Conceptual Terms

While an examination of the properties and limitations of definitions is better left to the philosopher of necessary to briefly comment on how definitions of conceptual terms, or assumptions taking on the character of definitions, tend to structure the focus and activities of action programs --- be they educational, economic, or agricultural programs. Most action programs that I am familiar with employ and, in fact, parade around a variety of conceptual terms while paying little heed to how their often implicit or, at best, imprecise definitions of these terms shape the structure of their action programs. This looseness is in part excusable due to the confines of time that face most action programs; however, it is a serious problem for the action program's target population because the definitions or assumptions often determine who is included in the target population, the goals of the action program, the activities need to attain the goals, and so on.

For example, if we examined how various action programs perceive or define the condition of poverty, we would see that these perceptions directly influence the programs (Hallman, 1968). If poverty is viewed in an individual deficiency mode, the goals of the action program will be oriented toward changing the individual though activities such as education, vocational training and/or personal rehabilitation. Conversely, if poverty is viewed in a societal deficiency mode, the goals and activities of the program will be directed toward a restructuring of society.

More to the point of this paper is the Federal Government's current attempt to define "Indian." The results of the nationwide hearings on how an "Indian" should be defined are, in my opinion, critical for Native Americans because the definition will determine who receives, among other things, what legal rights and access to resources. If, for example, an "Indian" was defined as a person who was born of Indian parents who lived on a reservation, and this individual now also lives on a reservation, one can easily see how many Federal Indian programs would be changed and how the lives of many now defined as "non-Indians" would be altered.

Definitions and Education

As we move into the educational arena, we find that there is a considerable amount of attention and creative thought now being paid to definitions, particularly on the part of school administrators, grant writers, and finance managers. This simply occurs because definitions are related to categorical funding programs and legally mandated educational programs. In terms of the former, especially if minor local matching funds are involved, definitions are liberally applied because the funds forthcoming are in direct proportion to the number of students who meet the criteria. For example, because my Anglo wife happens to be fluent in Spanish and an Alaskan school district questionnaire seemingly was constructed with bilingual funds in mind, our child was classified as a bilingual child although we are an English monolingual family. On the other hand, definitions seem to be restrictively interpreted when it comes to legally mandated programs because these programs often require the expenditure of large amounts of local funds to comply with the law. I suspect the proposed "Lau Remedies" are designed to prevent school districts from restrictively interpreting the definition of a bilingual child.

At another level, that of educational programs, definitions are equally important but they do not seem to have the same level of priority as do definitions involving finances. Perhaps this simply reflects the "Big Business" aspect of education but, whatever the reason, there is a need for educational administrators and teachers to pay more attention to the role played by definitions in educational programs. In the remainder of this paper, I will attempt to demonstrate why this is important by looking at culturally-labeled educational programs.

Given the volume and widespread agreement of the social sciences and educational literature of the last decade concerned with the role of formal education in society, it seems unnecessary here to reiterate or defend the proposition that formal education in the United States was, is, and perhaps always will be the cultural program of the dominant Euro-American group. While the emphases and content of this cultural program sometimes change, the basic thrust remains the same --- the cultural and technical preparation, assimilation, and, unfortunately, sorting of new societal members for places in the larger social system. Social scientists, educators and others have commented at length on this phenomenon but perhaps none has done so as eloquently as has Doris Lessing in the The Golden Notebook:

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this "You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a selt-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself-educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society" (1973:xvi-xvii).

If the channeling role of formal education is so pervasive as it seems to be, how do we account for the current plethora of culturally labeled programs that, at least superficially, seem to emphasize or at least allow for alternatives to the imperatives of the dominant group? I admit to being possibly overly cynical on this, but I believe these culturally labeled programs, since they are directly associated with subordinate minority groups, represent nothing more than pacification education or, more appropriately, pacification politics. I suspect that if one did a rigorous analysis of subordinate group unrest in the United States and correlated this unrest with the appearance of subordinate minority cultural programs, the result would be a very high rate of correlation. This is particularly so because these programs, as far as I can determine, have been able to do little to alter the basic structure of the dominant society of the United States in general and of Alaska in particular, the position of subordinate groups within this structure, or the condition of the members of the subordinate groups themselves. Thus, these programs appear to be a very affordable pacification tool, especially when compared to the alternative of unremitting pressures for a society with equal access to power and privilege for all.

Although I do not think anyone expects these programs to cause a major societal transformation, I do think many people, especially those who are the target population for these programs in Alaska, (and maybe elsewhere) expect ----and deserve to expect ---more from these programs than they are now receiving. It is my contention that these programs are failing their constituents primarily because of the way they define or conceive of culture.

Anyone who has spent any time delving into the idea or conceal)t of culture is immediately impressed with one fact: there are as many particular definitions of culture as there are writers about culture. No one person seems to be able to accept any other person’s definition of culture. I am not sure if there is some profound scientific reason for this diversity, or if it is simply a question of vanity. I suspect the latter. However, if on? has not simply abandoned the idea of investigating culture by this time and is willing to delve further into the topic, some general features or patterns will emerge which can be used to sort out and classify the various definitions of culture.

A crude but useful heuristic tool for sorting through this definitional forest is to think of these definitions as being arrayed along a continuum. At one end will be definitions which emphasize material products, at midpoint will be actions, and at the other pole will be a focus on conceptual or cognitive systems. Using this continuum, it is possible to classify most definitions of culture according to their central tendencies because few attempt to embrace the whole continuum, although one could point out how there are interrelationships between the points on the continuum. For example, if we define culture as "a system of learned contexts of meaning and guidelines for behavior shared by members of a society," (Dubbs and Whitney, 1980: 27) we are talking about a definition which tends toward the cognitive pole. On the other hand, if we define culture as what people do everyday, we are around the midpoint of the continuum; and so on.

The popular or, if you will, public definition of culture is one which hovers around the material product end of the continuum because it emphasizes such things as technological devices, clothing, decorative ornaments and artistic creations. Since few classroom teachers in Alaska seem to have much grounding in the social sciences beyond the lower division degree prerequisites and little cross-cultural preparation, it is not surprising that this definition is also the one that is employed in most elementary education programs in Alaska. This materially oriented definition of culture is, in my opinion, also the primary reason why these various cultural programs fail their constituents.

It is admittedly extremely easy to think of culture as an assemblage of material items because it allows one to see, touch, and build "culture" with little or no personal effort. It also, no doubt, is a lot easier to prepare lesson plans around things rather than around ideas. Thus, there are some pragmatic benefits from this artifactual approach to culture. Unfortunately, this definition also sets the conditions for failure because it positions the cultural program within the curriculum, sets the content of the program, and determines how the program will be accomplished.

When one implicitly or explicitly views culture as "material things," it is very easy to relegate minority group cultures to unimportant or low-status positions. In most Alaskan school districts, cultural heritage, bicultural, or multicultural programs seem to be viewed as curriculum appendages rather than as curriculum foundations. These programs, because they only focus

on material items, are thought of as "add ons" that take place only after the "really important," i.e., Euro-American, cultural program has been accomplished. Because these "add ons" are a separate and unequal part of the school curriculum, they are directly defined as unimportant for most teachers and therefore are the first to suffer if there is a preparation time or resource util- ization problem. While I am not sure they have reached the status of a recess, they are fast approach ing it. For the children, the appendage status is much more devastating: By adding the cultural program onto the regular curriculum and then paying scant attention to it, the school is effectively saying to the child, "We will tolerate a little of that which we have defined as your culture, but it really isn't too important in the grand scheme of things and if you think about this, you really aren't too important either unless you 'get with' the dominant Euro-American culture we are spending a lot of time teaching you." If this accurately depicts what an Alaska Native child learns about himself or herself during the impressionable first years of formal schooling, and I think it is, then there is Iittle wonder that there exist today massive problems among teenage and young adults of all Alaska Native groups. There is Iiterally or death crisis among young Alaska Natives today .

The impact of the artifactual approach to culture becomes more evident when we begin to look into the content of educational programs premised on this definition of culture. By definition, the content is the manufacture and/or comparison of material products. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with having children taught how to make items like sleds or snowshoes if they are associated with the life style of the community. However, I believe these productive skills can be taught much more effectively in a family or community context than in the school shop, even if a member of the local community is employed as the "cultural resource" instructor. The real problem associated with this type of content is that by defining culture in material terms, the educational program is, in effect, saying that concern; such as ideas about existence, the individual’s place within the stream of life, and proper rules for social interaction are not culture (although I am not sure what else they could be) and that these concerns are not important because we do not define them as being important. This would be somewhat explicable if the "definers" were simply the transient Anglo teachers who do not know or care much about Alaska Native cultural systems, but they are not. While there are too few certified Alaska Native teachers, many of them and the far larger number of Alaska Native classroom aides, cultural resource persons, and school board members also adopt the material definition of their own culture and, by so doing, further legitimize this definition, albeit with perhaps some intuitive degree of discomfort. Why does this occur? Since these Alaska Natives are products of and function within the dominant Euro-American educational system, it seems they have been taught or conditioned to believe the essence of their culture is their extremely functional artifactual inventory. The parka, mukluks or beadwork become tangible cultural remnants that can or are allowed to be preserved amidst the swirls of socio-cultural change. This --- and there is no other phrase for it --- colonial legacy pervades not only the cultural educational programs, it also is manifested in the goals and means of formal education itself.

But what of the children who partake in these materially oriented cultural programs? It seems that they are affected in several ways -- none of them good. First, like the preceding generations, they will be taught that their culture is nothing more than a fragmented collection of material products. Second, because the dominant system has defined their culture as fragmented material objects, the children will have to start wondering about or questioning other aspects of their lives, or those aspects which I would define as truly cultural. If the traditional beliefs, values, and ideas that have been taught to the children by their parents or relatives are not important enough to be defined as culture, what do they become except something to be discarded for the beliefs, values, and ideas that have been defined as important, i.e., the Euro-American ones? What then happens to the cohesive forces in the community? The answer seems obvious: disintegration at personal, familial and community levels begins. A third and most disturbing effect is that at some time everyone asks the question, "Who am l"? After passing through the Euro-American and Alaska Native cultural programs, how does the Alaska Native child, teen-ager, or young adult answer this question except to say, "I don’t know." And then what happens? The possible range of adverse consequences is all too obvious to warrant discussion in this paper.

The remaining effect of the material definition of culture on educational programs relates to how these programs are accomplished. Since they stress production and occur in the school plant, they are conducted in a "school-as-usual" fashion. There is no consideration given to the cultural basis of learning styles, the social organization of activity, and so forth because these are not thought about in the regular school day. Thus, we have a paradox in which attempts to teach the local "culture" are done in ways that are alien to the local culture. Even if local individuals are brought into the school as cultural resource people, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to teach in their own style because, based on their experience, they know that "school teaching" is supposed to be something different. If they venture forth and use their own teaching style, it will not be too long before there are mutterings among the regular teachers and/or school administrators that there are discipline problems and nothing seems to be getting done. These pressures will quickly force the individual to fit into the conventional school mode or he/she will lose the position.

I do not pretend to have the solution to the problems mentioned thus far, but I would be remiss if I did not offer a few recommendations as a conclusion to this paper. First and foremost, either through pre-service or in-service cross-cultural training, teachers must move from the popular material definition of culture to one which is cognitively oriented. That is, one which defines culture as the learned and shared knowledge, beliefs, values, and expressive modes that people have in their heads and which they use to interpret and interact with the world around them.

Second, once culture is defined as a holistic cognitive system, all facets of the school curriculum will need to be integrated around and accomplished within this cultural framework. The Euro-American cultural program that exists today must, in essence, be replaced by the Alaska Native cultural program. This does not mean that existing content areas have to be abandoned. What it does mean, however, is that these content areas must relate to the local cultural context and must be taught in locally appropriate ways. I believe this would be very difficult to accomplish without an effective bilingual component because of language's critical relationship to cultural and thought processes.

Third, since formal education done on Alaska Native cultural terms cannot be isolated from the community, "going to school" will have to involve more than spending time in the existing physical plant. The geographical community and its members will also become the "school."

About this time, a fair question to ask is, "What will these recommendations actually accomplish"? Candidly, I am not sure. However, I am sure that if educational changes along this line are not implemented, the cultures of Alaska Natives will be in grave danger- of being lost forever.


Dubbs, Patrick J. and Daniel D. Whitney.1980. Cultural Contexts: Making Anthropology Personal. Boston: AlIyn and Bacon.

HalIman, Howard W. 1968. "The Community Action Program: An Interpretive Analysis," in Power, Poverty, and Urban Policy. Warner Bloomberg, Jr. and Henry J. Schmandt, eds., pp. 28-311. Beverly Hills Saye.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. New York: Bantam Books.



The essays assembled in this collection reflect over 30 years of first hand observation of, and participation in Native education and rural development in Alaska.




Part I: Alaska Native Education

Cultural Definitions in Educational Programs

The Log School: A Case for Appropriate Design (with Ray Barnhardt)

Alaska Native Education and Development Ideologies

Part II - Rural Development in Alaska

Organizational Congruence and ANCSA

Another Development in Rural Alaska

Decolonizing Economics

The Whale and the Co-op: The Emerging Issue of Animal Rights in Rural Alaska

Arctic Atolls: Small State Theory and Rural Development in Alaska

Sustainable Development and Indigenous People: Authors and Actors in Rural Alaska

Small Alaska Native Villages: Are They Worth Saving?



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Last modified November 7, 2006